While perfume lovers and professionals still believe the urban legend according to which a bottle of Caron Narcisse Noir appears on Norma Desmond’s vanity (it doesn’t), no one has ever taken the time to see what’s actually on that table.
Well, I have and I love what I’ve found – three Lucien Lelong bottles!
Right under the round standing mirror on Norma’s left there’s a short bottle with bow-like stopper: it’s Jabot, launched in 1939.
If we move to the left side of the table, there’s a tall balloon bottle containing Balakaïka eau de cologne, launched in 1939.
When Norma stands up, we can see a golden bottle of Orgueil on a small table on the far left. This Jean Carles fragrance was launched in 1946.
I don’t think my passion for Lelong perfumes is a mystery: I’ve written about them many times and I find their bottle designs very distinctive and original. Seeing some of them on such an iconic dressing table really makes sense: it shows us that Norma Desmond is a fragrance lover and supposedly uses more than one fragrance, as shown by the several bottles sitting on the table (I haven’t been able to identify them all).
Now another question pops up: if we assume she is wearing a Lucien Lelong perfume in this famous scene, what perfume is it? Where does the infamous tuberose come from? It could be from Orgueil, which, according to Basenotes, includes tuberose in its heart notes, along with carnation, iris, jasmine, rose, clove and nutmeg.
There’s a urban legend according to which Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) mentioned Caron Narcisse Noir in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, thus scoring the first major product placement in cinema. You find this piece of news everywhere on Internet, basically in every single review of the perfume. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you but this is what I said, nothing more than a urban legend.
Yesterday evening I took the time to watch the film for the nth time and there is no mention  to the Caron perfume. The only moment in which Joe Gillis (William Holden) comments on Norma’s perfume is from the movie-watching scene. “She’d sit very close to me, and she’s smell of tuberoses, which is not my favourite perfume, not by a long shot.” According to Fragrantica, tuberose can’t even be found in the olfactory pyramid of Narcisse Noir! Maybe the legend started from the fact that Swanson was said to have used this perfume on set, but there’s a big difference between saying she used it on set and saying it was mentioned in the film. I can’t rule out the possibility that a bottle of it was on the busy dressing table of the diva, but I couldn’t find it. Show me a screencap and we’ll discuss about it.
[Post updated in July 2020] Six years have passed since I first posted about this mystery and now I can finally say it’s been almost solved. Thanks to the invaluable information provided by M, a reader of this blog, we can trace back the false rumour of Gloria Swanson mentioning Caron Narcisse Noir in Sunset Boulevard to a fact.
M found a 1927 issue of the magazine Photoplay whereWhat the Pictures Do to Us by Terry Ramsaye points out a shopping mania sparked by Sam Wood’s Beyond the Rocks (1922), a silent film starring Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino. The article states that “a peculiarly shaped bottle, squat and widespread, with a curious and imposing big black stopper, ornamented with flower carvings” can be seen in one scene where Theodora (Swanson) is making up. The perfume (identified as the 1911 Caron creation) intrigued the women in the audience so much that it soon sold out in shops.
This information is incredibly exciting, because it would indicate the first placement of a perfume in cinema history. I knew it was too good to be true, though: I watched the film twice and the scene mentioned in the article is nowhere to be found. Maybe the version available on YouTube is not the original one, maybe some scenes are missing; in any case, *that* scene is missing. But it’s not over: there’s a scene where a narcissus perfume actually makes its appearance!
The scene is set at a chalet in the Alps, where Theodora and her middle-aged husband Josiah Brown (Robert Bolder) are spending their honeymoon. A waitress pours some narcissus perfume on a handkerchief and gives it to Theodora. Soon after the woman loses the handkerchief, which falls to the ground; it’s picked up by a waiter, who goes around the tables to find its owner. The handkerchief gets into the hands of Lord Hector Bracondale (Rudolph Valentino), who sensuosly smells it. Even if the two protagonists first met years before, this moment sets their romance in motion.
You can see that the bottle is not Caron Narcisse Noir, but it’s a narcissus perfume nonetheless. This makes things complicated. What is the truth? Did the film have a scene not included in the version I watched where the Caron perfume was actually visible? Or did the fans of the film just go to the stores asking for a narcissus perfume and the Caron one was the only one with that name? This uncertainty breaks me but at least now it’s clear why Gloria Swanson was so strongly associated to a narcissus perfume. This association has kept going up to this day if so many people still think Narcisse Noir is mentioned or seen in Sunset Boulevard (it’s not!), a film Swanson starred in 28 years after Beyond the Rocks.